West, born William West Anderson, had a thriving career playing cops and cowboys in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including a regular role on The Detectives. But for better and for worse, he was defined by the three seasons he spent in the title role of ABC’s Batman from 1966–1968. The show was a campy, pop art–inspired playground and West’s performance—an utterly straight-faced approach to a ridiculous character—was perfect. “All we wanted from him was eternal squareness, rigidity, and purposefulness,” producer William Dozier said in 1966 as Batman’s premiere loomed, and West—helped by Burt Ward’s Robin and a lineup of celebrity guest stars—delivered. Whether he was dancing the Batusi or hanging from a helicopter with a shark chomping on his leg (in the series’ spinoff Batman: The Movie), West’s ultra-serious approach to ultra-ridiculous material worked perfectly.
Once the show was off the air, however, West found it hard to escape its reputation. “There was a time when Batman really kept me from getting some pretty good roles, and I was asked to do what I figured were important features,” he told Variety later. “However, Batman was there, and very few people would take a chance on me walking on to the screen.” After starring in one feature and having a major role in another in Batman’s immediate aftermath—1969’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much and 1971’s The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker—he spent the 1970s doing a lot of single-episode TV guest appearances. In 1977, he returned to his most famous role for CBS’s animated series The New Adventures of Batman, going on to voice the Caped Crusader in the 1980s on various incarnations of Hanna Barbera’s Superfriends series. But West’s Batman was out of step with the self-serious turn the character took in the 1980s, and for some comic book fans, he became an emblem of the dark days when the culture didn’t treat the story of a rich man who dresses up like a bat to fight crime with enough respect.
Faced with the prospect of being forever defined by his appearance on a television show many people saw as a slightly embarrassing historical oddity, West leaned into his reputation, playing himself as a Batman-obsessed crank in a memorable appearance on The Simpsons classic “Mr. Plow” episode. That led to a spate of guest spots in which West played “Adam West,” from The Critic to Murphy Brown, culminating in his Family Guy role as “Mayor Adam West,” a part he played from the show’s second season in 2000 through the 15th season; his most recent episode aired just this May.
West is survived by his wife Marcelle, their four children, two children from a previous marriage, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. His family released the following statement:
Our dad always saw himself as The Bright Knight, and aspired to make a positive impact on his fans’ lives. He will be missed.